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Posts Tagged ‘dystopian fiction’

ALMOST HUMAN, A No Spoiler Review

So…I’m on an airplane and thinking it’s my chance to watch something new. Yay! I turn on my personal tele, flip through the film and television options. I see a TV series called ALMOST HUMAN. It looks scifi enough and I see JJ Abrams’ name attached to it. I decide to try an episode. I imagine I am watching something new, but apparently, I’m not.

ALMOST HUMAN aired in the late 2012 and early 2013s (in the media world. 7 years is a lifetime). JJ Abrams, Bryan Burk and JH Wyman produced this series.

The premise of ALMOST HUMAN is not so original. It’s basically a cop drama. The unique aspect to this story is his AI partner. Dorian is a humanoid AI, often referred to as a “synthetic” in the series. John Kennex, the main character, is a cop who frequently bends/breaks the rules. Typical cop drama trope. He also carries a lot of emotional baggage. Also typical. Some of that baggage is introduced in the first episode. What is unique about this cop drama is that his partner Dorian is an AI programmed to be empathetic and does not hesitate to tell Kennex when he sees him making poor choices. Those moments are both poignant and funny. Watching their unlikely friendship develop makes for an interesting story. In a way, both are helping the other to become better humans.

ALMOST HUMAN was cancelled at the end of the first season. Thirteen episodes is all that is available to the viewing audience. However the four episodes I watched were entertaining and would interest most scifi fans, especially if your second love after scifi is cop shows. In case that doesn’t sound gripping enough, here are three more reasons you might want to check it out…

  1. The series puts forward a robocop-type world. In this well-drawn urban landscape of Earth’s future, human cops team up with Artificial Intelligence cops. That’s a nice twist on the typical cop drama.
  2. The series explores a lot of possible future tech for law enforcement like instantaneous DNA identification. Some of how the cops do their work and the ways the criminals try to outsmart or subvert the new tech is fascinating.
  3. There is a satisfying “solving of the crime” in each episode, like many typical cop dramas.

While I do recommend this series, it will cost you money. Amazon Prime and YouTube dangle the fruit of the one season in front of us…for $20. Each episode is $1.99, so if you’re doubtful, rent one or two episodes and see if you like it…or fly Delta sometime in the next few months. I liked episodes 2 and 3 more than the first, so try to watch more than the pilot.

 

Almost Human Trailer

 

KINDRED, A No Spoiler Review

KINDRED, perhaps the most admired novel written by the late, great Octavia Butler is a nearly perfect novel.

I rate this novel PG-13 for the violence that is shown, though not celebrated, against black slaves.

I plan to write a separate post for educators after this general review of the novel.

Short Review…3 Reasons to Read

  1. KINDRED is a page-turner. As a novelist, I so admire this book. It ain’t easy to keep your audience on edge. Butler does it with genius.
  2. KINDRED humanizes slaves and slaveholders…In my mind, KINDRED is a literary narrative because it does not simplify the incredibly complex story of slavery in US history/society.
  3. KINDRED is literary, yet it is also an adventure story…Read the book to gain empathy, knowledge and understanding, but count on being entertained and in suspense while you learn.

Longer Review

Octavia Butler did write great science fiction, like The Xenogenesis Trilogy, but KINDRED falls into a different category. It’s a time-travel fantasy with fewer of the typical time travel tropes. We all know those tropes, how tension builds as the reader/audience wonders whether a character who impacts past will change the future. In KINDRED, that tension (changing the future by impacting the past) stays in the background. It is a worry, but not the primary worry. What creates the tension in KINDRED is the survival of the main character.

The story premise is brilliant.

Dana, whom the reader affixes to very early, is an African American woman, married to a white man living in the 1970s. She is living her life in the present as a happy person. Suddenly, she finds herself yanked back into history. It takes her a while to figure out why, but eventually, she and the reader understand that every time one of her ancestors (a white slave owner) finds his life in danger, Dana is summoned to the past. This happens multiple times. Dana comes back into real time when she finds herself in danger of being severly injured or killed. The going back and forth is painful, but an interesting narrative device. The reader, who empathizes with Dana, finds these short respites back in the modern era as hopeful and yet terrifying because the readers knows, as does Dana, that she will be yanked back in time within minutes, hours or days of her respite. Her oasis in the modern era taunts the reader and gives the reader pause. At least in part, our society has grown out of the horrifying reality of slavery. That reality cannot be denied, or at least it is harder to deny when the reader is identifying so powerfully with this main character.

Dana, because of her experience of liberty in the 1970s as a black woman, becomes a guide to those in the past. She has agency, yet because of her skin color, she is also threatening to everyone who exists in this past world, including the slaves she will try to help.

Regarding KINDRED’s captivating narrative, I challenge you to read the first twenty pages of this book and be able to put it down.

Regarding KINDRED’s story, I challenge you to read something of greater substance that falls into the category of “time travel narrative”. I doubt you will find one.

To buy this masterpiece, click KINDRED

To buy the first of Butler’s science fiction the Xenogenesis trilogy, click DAWN

To buy the whole trilogy, click The Xenogenesis Trilogy

 

10 Reasons You Want to Watch BLADE RUNNER, The Original

Blade Runner, The Original

I rewatched BLADE RUNNER last night in a friend’s home-theater with a group of folks in their 20s and 30s. For some, it was their first time viewing the film.

I consider myself one of the lucky ones to have seen the original BLADE RUNNER on the big screen during its first weekend release. I was a young highschooler at the time, a huge sci-fi fan and living in Burbank, California. I remember my older brother and I driving west over the Hollywood Hills, as we did often in that era, to make sure we were getting the biggest bang for our buck. Our theater of choice that night was The Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Boulevard.

It’s not easy to describe to a new generation of filmgoers how important this film was at that time. Most folks in the film industry, especially directors point to BLADE RUNNER as ground-breaking. Ridley Scott made BLADE RUNNER after finishing the film, ALIEN. He also made it after his brother had died of cancer. The dark setting of BLADE RUNNER reflects a dark state of mind. Don’t expect cheerfulness here.

YET…you don’t have to be a filmmaker to appreciate BLADE RUNNER.

 

Here are 10 Reasons Every Sci-Fi Fan Ought to Watch BLADE RUNNER

Oh, and watch the FINAL CUT. 2007 version. There are seven versions of this film. Kind of crazy, I know.

  1. Cult classics happen for a reason. Following its meh release in 1982, a slow-building respect, awe and cult following emerged.
  2. BLADE RUNNER influenced the next generation of filmmakers, especially dystopian and sci-fi writers/directors.
  3. This is a brilliant screenplay (especially once R.Scott took out the clunky voice-over narration), though there are many fans of that version of the film.
  4. Take pleasure in watching a young Harrison Ford perfectly embody the main character, Richard Deckard.
  5. You like The Man in the High Castle? Philip K. Dick wrote that novel. BLADE RUNNER is an adaptation of his weird classic, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
  6. You’re a Battlestar Galactica fan? Here is a chance to see Edward James Olmos (Captain Adama) in a role you would not expect.
  7. Complicated villain. Rutger Hauer…what a performance!

    Hauer as Roy Batty

  8. The sequel is excellent and makes a lot more sense if you watch the original first.
  9. This is not a movie for the weak, nor is it for the mindless. You will have to think and process the experience after viewing.
  10. Because of number 9, it’s a great film to see with a group of friends. At the very least, the post-film discussion won’t be boring.

 

If you want to totally nerd out on BLADE RUNNER, I recommend this very long and thorough article in Cinephilia & Beyond

No Spoiler Review of ACCEPTANCE, by Jeff Vandermeer

The Short Review. Why or Why not Read ACCEPTANCE?

 

Why read?

 

  1. I already consumed the first two in the trilogy and like to finish things
  2. I wanted to understand more of the mystery that is Area X. There was definitely more backstory to absorb in this volume
  3. I enjoyed the deeply flawed, but thoughtful characters
  4. I wanted to spend more time in the imaginative world of Area X
  5. The writing style was unique and often beautiful

 

Why avoid reading?

  1. Because the point of view was shifting all the time, it was a challenge to attach to any one character
  2. Disappointing ending
  3. The writing style grew stale after a while…lots of interior musings and struggles without enough plot or even conflict (the conflict is underlying, but too diffuse)
  4. Not only does Vandermeer shift points of view with every chapter, he also moves back and forth between past and present
  5. I started this book on audio, but switched to print about a 1/3 of the way through because POV and time switching was too confusing

To buy ACCEPTANCE, click here.

To buy the SOUTHERN REACH TRILOGY, click here.

 

The Longer Review of ACCEPTANCE

 

This longer review, may contain spoilers for the first two novels in the trilogy. For those reviews, click Annihilation, A Book Review and/or Authority, A Book Review.

 

If you read my earlier reviews, you understand that I started out a big fan of Annihilation. Not only was the main character, compelling, but the mysteries that unfolded in the narrative created the perfect amount of tension to keep me engaged. I’m guessing this was true for many other readers interested in the interior life of this quietly observant biologist as she ventures into Area X. The biologist (she is never named in the book) is at the heart a true scientist and in certain respects more attuned to flora and fauna than to people, but she observes people with a scientific eye. She is spooky, highly intelligent and trustworthy as a narrator in surprising and interesting ways. I really loved this character. I loved that she was anti-social and an introvert. She also had clear motivation to act because her husband had been on a previous mission into Area X and returned damaged before succumbing to death  She is a worthy rival to the various human and monster challengers that get in her way. In fact, she is such a great character that Alex Garland (screenwriter) took the story and created a feature-length film around her, that character played wonderfully by Natalie Portman. I loved the film, but it is not the same story told in the trilogy, nor is it the same story told in the novel after which it is named. The film narrative diverges in significant ways. I will post my review of the film tomorrow. I ought not say more unless I spoil the story.

 

What to say about Vandermeer’s style? Be prepared for words like ziggurat to be on the page in large numbers. His writing is lovely and intellectually gratifying if you’re interested in imaginative metaphors and curious juxtapositions. This language mimics the beauty and strangeness of Area X. Here is an excerpt:

 

In Control’s imagination, the entrance to the topographical anomaly was enormous, mixed with the biologist’s vast bulk in his thoughts so that he had expected a kind of immense ziggurat upside down in the earth. But no, it was what it had always been: a little over sixty feet in diameter, circular, located in the middle of a small clearing. The entrance lay there open for them, as it had for so many others. No soldiers here, nothing more unusual than the thing itself.

 

I’m not opposed to imaginative language, but the extensive descriptions did sometime bog down the story for me, especially when I was trying to consume the book via audio. With a passage like above, I would sometimes have to rewind…What did he just say? Did he say ziggurat?

 

Finally, my reticence to fully praise this trilogy is that the mystery is not explained to my satisfaction. Too many unanswered questions. I guess Vandermeer has another novel called Area X, but given this group of books…Annihilation, Authority and ACCEPTANCE are presented to the world as a trilogy…I want the satisfaction to take place by the end of the third book and not have to pick up another novel to figure out the answers I need.

 

Regarding the audio experience. For whatever reason, my brain struggles to follow an audio narrative that jumps around in point of view and in the timeline like this novel did. I struggled with this same issue when I listened to The Three Body Problem. Annihilation as an audio book was easier to listen to. It was straightforward, narrated by one character in the first person and unfolded in a linear timeline (with a few memories/backstory as a part of filling out the character). That narration works well for me. I’m curious for those of you who consume a lot of audio books if you have these same struggles? Drop me a line and let me know.

SNOW CRASH, A Review Without Spoilers

SNOW CRASH, by Neal Stephenson.

SNOW CRASH, by Neal Stephenson was put before me by a member of my sci-fi book group. It’s my second exposure to cyber punk (novels) and I enjoyed the ride (in part). This novel, if turned into film, would likely be rated R. I recommend SNOW CRASH with reservations.

My Review in Two Parts

Why read SNOW CRASH?… 4 Reasons for YES!

  1. The world-building is remarkable and for many sci-fi fans Neal Stephenson is a must-read author in the cyberpunk sub-genre. I absolutely loved the beginning. The entry into this world felt fresh and dynamic. The first 50 pages (at least) will have you riveted.
  2. The action scenes are numerous and mostly well-timed and well-written. The action begins on page one and sets the tone for the rest of the story.
  3. The intersection of virtual reality (Stephenson calls VR the Metaverse…he claims to be the originator of this term) and physical reality feels fluid and actually not that weird now (though it was a genuinely futuristic concept when he published the novel in 1992).
  4. Stephenson unearths some original and fantastical ideas. Some folks will love the philosophical bent of the story, having to do with ancient and current religions, computer coding, language as code and viruses that cross from virtual reality into the physical world.

Why avoid SNOW CRASH?…4 Reasons for No!

  1. Shallow characters inhabit this book. The world-building went deep, but the emotional depth and intelligence of the characters bored me.
  2. (related to reservation 1) The characters, especially the main characters, did not have any real physical or mental weaknesses, sort of like superheroes. In fact, the protagonist is called Hiro Protagonist. By naming his main character Hiro, Stephenson is channeling the comic book/superhero genre. I read about the development of the novel. Stephenson began this book hoping to make it a graphic novel, it did not evolve in that form. However, even superheroes will have angst or some kind of existential danger. Every Superman must have his longing (Lois), his vulnerability (kryptonite) and face a villain who understands how to use these vulnerabilities to press the hero to the point of making a moral choice about his/her power. Though Stephenson’s characters get banged up here and there, I never felt they might actually be in danger or that they feared for their own lives. They took their beatings in stride. Moreover, I never felt there were emotional stakes for either of them (the secondary character is called YT…she is a skateboard delivery person). Hiro’s and YT’s motivations for putting everything on the line to save the world did not seem to connect to any ounce of characterization that I understood.
  3. Stephenson’s bad/shallow theology was disappointing for me. I will assume that Stephenson did his homework in regard to Sumerian religion and philosophy. (I deduce this from reading his acknowledgments). However, I hang out with a number of Christian thinkers because I’m married to one, and Stephenson’s characterization of Biblical theology is weak and ill informed. I don’t mind critiques of my religion…I even enjoy them if they are well thought out. Stephenson’s were not.
  4. The info-dump sections were enormous, boring and preachy. A cyber librarian is the character in the Metaverse who does the explaining to Hiro Protagonist, therefore to us. It’s a clever idea to use the librarian, but his information still comes in large swaths and awkwardly disrupts the drama. The info-dump is a huge temptation for sci-fi writers. I struggle with it myself. It’s difficult to build the world, explain the conflict, the problem that will drive the narrative and incorporate all your own ideas/themes without taking up scores of pages explaining stuff to your audience, but great writers tell us that the info dump method is lazy writing. There are other ways to do it! See an earlier post on allscifi that discusses Jemisin’s chosen method for handling backstory in the narrative. Good friend and fellow sci-fi writer, Lit Prof Liam Corley is a Jemisin fan and wrote the post a couple of weeks ago.

In short. If you’re a sci-fi nut/nerd, YES…read SNOW CRASH, but if you’re a literary person wandering around in sci-fi…read Octavia Butler, Jemisin, Le Guin, Vandermeer, Scalzi…almost anyone, but Stephenson.

To buy SNOW CRASH…click here.

Five Reasons You’ll Be Glad You Read N.K. Jemisin

I am delighted to introduce this third guest post. Professor Liam Corley, an old friend from my early years as a University pastor at UC Berkeley, writes on Jemisin.

First, Professor Corley will show us why Jemisin is worth reading. Second, he will comment on Jemisin’s deft handling of the story-telling craft. The latter part of the post contains spoilers, but for anyone who cares about writing great characters in epic novels, the professor’s sharp analysis will be incredibly helpful. Enjoy!

Five Reasons…(no spoilers)

N.K. Jemisin

 

Sure, N.K. Jemisin has won all of the top prizes in the industry, and every one of the books in The Broken Earth trilogy has won the Hugo. But you’re a discerning reader. You don’t follow trends or hype. Why will you be glad you read Jemisin’s amazing novels?

  1. You’re a mom, and you have fought with your daughter. Maybe been mean. Apologized. Did it again. Jemisin’s work is all about the woman protagonist, especially mothers, and the tangled relationships she depicts will have you thinking about YOUR relationships in a new way.
  2. You know Black Lives Matter, but you don’t know how to talk about it without bursting into flames or tears. Jemisin’s work is a treasure trove of insight into how to confront, live through, and go beyond racial injustice and all of the horrors it has inflicted. From lynching to the casual use of the N-word, it’s all there, in sci fi clothing.
  3. You care about the environment–really care–and wonder what humanity is doing to its survival prospects by destroying our home.The Broken Earth faces up to the end of the world. Again and again and again. Why are we destroying the world? Because we’re greedy and hate each other. Yup, that’s pretty broken. But Jemisin also shows people learning how to survive in the aftermath and figuring out how to make things right.
  4. You think Toni Morrison is the best writer ever. Hands down. Ever. If Octavia Butler and Toni Morrison had a love child, it would be N.K. Jemisin. If you can remember reading Beloved in college or watching the movie with Oprah and bawling your eyes out because it was all just so wrong, so beautiful, and so painfully wrong and beautiful, you’ll want to read The Broken Earth.
  5. You love great science fiction and fantasy world-building and character-driven plots. If you are an avid sci-fi reader and especially if you write it, you’ll want to immerse yourself in Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. For more on this point, see my longer review on Craft and Culture in Jemisin’s work below.

Click here to buy the first book of The Broken Earth trilogy. Click here if you want to buy all three.

The Broken Earth Trilogy

Warning: there are spoilers below, so in case you haven’t read Jemisin yet, you may want to stop reading and pick up the first book of the trilogy. 

 

 

 

 

The Fifth Season, first book of the Broken Earth trilogy

 

 

Craft and Culture:

Notes on N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth Trilogy

(spoilers below)

 

Readers of SFF (science fiction and fantasy) have embraced N.K. Jemisin’s acclaimed Broken Earth trilogy, and every installment of the series has won the coveted Hugo Award. Consequently, this post is not meant to introduce new readers to the series. Instead, I will be pointing out elements of Jemisin’s writing that contribute to the magic of the reading experience. Other SFF writers will find this of interest, but so will readers who want to understand why the novels affected them as they did. I’ll touch briefly on how Jemisin weaves her alternating timelines into a narrative fabric that turns flashbacks into a strength, not a weakness, on Jemisin’s incorporation of racial politics that are already part of her reader’s core emotional lives, and on the genres novels’ connections to more literary traditions.

I found myself reflecting on Jemisin’s woven chronologies when I was trying to think through the best ways to incorporate character backstories in my SF work-in-progress. Writers know that flat characters live only in the moment, and their motivations tend to have more to do with survival or accomplishment than working out emotional consequences of their past. Yet providing a character’s past can be a distraction from engaging readers in the drama of the story’s “now” time. How then can authors deepen their characters without losing narrative engagement? Jemisin’s solution is brilliant.

In the first book of the trilogy, Jemisin takes her main character’s timeline and slices it into three parts—childhood, adulthood, and post-apocalyptic adulthood. The character has different names in these time periods and acts in much different geographies and societies, so it takes a while before most readers realize that the chapters which alternate between these three perspectives are actually all the same character at different times of her life. What this allows Jemisin to do is to provide the entire scope of her main character’s life in a nonlinear fashion that is as engaging as it is emotionally excruciating. Getting to know the main character at three very different stages of life gives readers a clear view of the character’s depth, journey, change, and motivation.

This technique shouldn’t simply be adopted wholesale by authors wishing to provide an engaging saga, but it makes evident a point that could be adopted more broadly: backstory needs to be as engaging as the main story or it shouldn’t be indulged in beyond broad strokes and hints. All narrative is a dance between scenes and interludes, scenes and interludes, scenes and . . . Flashbacks, to be compelling and to maintain the hooks of engagement, should be fully realized scenes and not inert paragraphs of backstory.

The Broken Earth series is almost entirely a story about race-based injustice and the ways that civilizations built on exploitation create systems and stories to obscure or recast their dependence on a despised underclass. Jemisin is incredibly effective in evoking readers’ feelings about American racial politics by incorporating parallel dynamics in her fictional world. The first, and probably most overt, instance is her use of a racial epithet, “Rogga,” to indicate orogenes, the enslaved and exploited earth magicians. The sonic similarity of the epithet to the N-word is obvious and intentional. Indeed, even the complex ways the term is used in the series—as slur, as indictment of injustice, as insider labeling—mirror the many ways the N-word is debated in our society. This instance of labeling leaves no questions in the readers’ minds about the allegorical nature of racial politics in Jemisin’s world.

What makes Jemisin’s evocation of contemporary race so powerful is precisely such correspondences that, despite their overt nature when reflected upon, fit so well within plot of the novel that readers can escape the sorts of mental coping mechanisms they have for engaging racial issues in their non-reading lives. Edgar Allan Poe was a master of this technique. His tales of the grotesque and macabre are set far distant in time and geography from the slave-owning Southern states where he lived, but their depictions of torture, fear, guilt, and sadism draw indirectly on the repressed experience of those dynamics on plantations. Jemisin’s incorporation of lynchings, segregation, dehumanization, and other tools used by racist societies to subjugate their victims both draw on and make explicit the prevalence of these practices in our own world.

I’ll pivot here to Jemisin’s relationship to African American literature because the series has numerous plot points and characterizations that evoke masterworks by Toni Morrison, one of the most important American writers of the last century. Morrison has won both the Pulitzer and Nobel Prize in a distinguished career that exploded into prominence with the publication of Beloved in 1988. Morrison’s novels often focus on a strong African American woman character, something Jemisin also does through her allegorical association of orogenic ability with African American identity. [spoiler alert] Several key plot points in The Broken Earth draw on Sethe’s world in Beloved, most notably when Sethe murders her own child to prevent her from being taken back into slavery.

There are at least a dozen other correspondences between Morrison and Jemisin that occurred to me as I read The Broken Earth, but I won’t spoil your reading pleasure by listing them all. Suffice it to say, SFF editors and agents interested in fostering more #ownstories in the genre should expect to see more explicit borrowing from more established traditions in the future. Most importantly, I think that editors and agents should take note of what Morrison and Jemisin already have expressed through their work: #ownstories aren’t niche or sideline stories; they are central to the human condition, and in the case of the United States, foundational to our national identity and culture.

Related to the issue of a society’s foundations in racial injustice, i.e. SLAVERY, is how Jemisin draws on another classic of SFF literature, Ursula K. Le Guin’s immensely powerful and well-known story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” The story poses a philosophical question about injustice and the related phenomenon of scapegoating: would I live in a society that seemed perfect if I knew its perfection depended upon the suffering a single nameless child? The Broken Earth stages this epiphany and existential crisis time and time again throughout the series, with the added element of the unmerited scapegoating being race-based.

On the whole, I’ve become quite a fanboy of Ms. Jemisin’s work, and I hope someday to assign it in one of my classes on American literature

Liam Corley

Liam Corley is a professor of American literature at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He is also a Navy Reserve officer, and he returned to creative writing as a way of understanding the world after his deployment to Afghanistan in 2008-2009. His work on literature and war can be found in BadlandsChautauquaCollege EnglishFirst ThingsThe Wrath-Bearing Tree, and War, Literature, & the Arts. He is currently at work on a science fiction manuscript about genetics, time travel, and humanity’s irreligious future. He lives in Riverside, CA, with his wife and four children.

 

BIRD BOX: A Review with a Couple of Spoilers

Watch and Enjoy. BIRD BOX is an Entertaining Film as Long as you Know that These Images and Themes Have Been Seen Before

BIRD BOX was produced by Netflix and released for public consumption on December, 21, 2018. According to Netflix data, 45 million people watched BIRD BOX in the week before Christmas.

For those who didn’t watch it over Christmas, like me, here’s the review…

This story is a Quiet Place, but without the husband (there is a stand-out dude…Tom, played by Trevante Rhodes…who becomes a stand-in husband and Father, but for a short portion of the film). The story portrays a mother, Sandra Bullock, as Malorie, who gives birth shortly after a catastrophic alien invasion? The film does not make this clear…Is it really aliens? At one point, there is a reference to North Korea and bio warfare…but one can be pretty sure it’s more along the alien invasion spectrum. Creatures are mentioned in one of the early scenes. Most eager scifi fans will swallow yet another apocalyptic scenario and accept the tragedy as instigated by something otherworldly that impacts every person, mostly in a negative way. (99% of the human race does not thrive under its influence…yes, that’s a spoiler of sorts, but then you probably knew this).

There is some challenge in writing a review of this film with zero spoilers, because the narrative is so familiar to so many of us, but I’ll try. 

Here’s the premise…After an alien invasion (I think) every person becomes infected with a psychosis. This is spread from person to person through what they see. What do they see? That remains a mystery, but the results can be seen and they are catastrophic. Those infected figure out ways to kill themselves. Society drifts into destruction. Those who survive either do so by covering their eyes or a few see and don’t kill themselves right away. However, they become crazy people who attempt to get everyone else infected. The aliens are never seen by the audience, though they are heard and they are drawn in charcoal on paper by one survivor (one of the crazies). The aliens appear (in his drawings) as demons or devils. It’s possible this is some kind of bio-tech warfare and the creatures/aliens are all imagined, part of the psychosis. The audience isn’t in the know on that one.

Sandra Bullock finds herself responsible for two children and needs to figure out a way to get them to safety and a place where they can thrive. For that to happen, she needs to float them down a river, blindfolded. The story opens with her getting on the boat after lecturing the two little ones on the dangers of the trip and the importance of never taking off the blindfold, but the real body of the film takes place in backstory.

BIRD BOX portrays what A Quiet Place never did…the immediate aftermath of a catastrophic alien invasion that jacks up humanity. In BIRD BOX, the audience sees the unraveling. In A Quiet Place the viewer needs to imagine that unraveling. However, in BIRD BOX, the audience needs to imagine the villain. In A Quiet Place, the audience gets a clear view, eventually, of the alien that is bent on destroying humanity and by the end, a possible way to defeat it. That “ending” note is missing from BIRD BOX. It does not deliver enough answers about the mystery. Does an unseen villain ruin this film? Not exactly, but if a sequel is ever made, I will expect answers.

Regarding the similarities between the two films…It did strike me right away that in BIRD BOX, covering eyes is important, while in A Quiet Place not speaking is essential…which begs the questions…is this a theme that our current audiences want to explore? What if we had to survive in a post apocalyptic world without our sight or without speaking? Maybe the post apocalyptic universe is too easy…or maybe too familiar? I suppose, the next film of this ilk will explore surviving without hearing, or how about without tasting. Apparently, the public hungers for the answers to these question. I suspect, the quandary has to do with our over-teched and over-connected reality, but maybe there is another yearning I don’t yet comprehend. Another similarity between the films is the prominence of a pregnant mom as a survivor during a horrid moment of human existence.

I will say, the film (free for Netflix users) BIRD BOX is an entertaining jaunt. If you can get past the unknowns that are never explained…watch it and enjoy the drama that can only unfold at the end of the world.

 

A QUIET PLACE, Film Review with a Slight Spoiler

Science fiction pops up in the darndest places, some of those places are quiet places. Okay, okay…so that’s a bit of a spoiler, but why the heck did it take me so long to hear from someone/anyone that this film was about people surviving an alien invasion. I think some of why is because of the code of mystery that surrounded this film when it came out. Everyone seemed reluctant to tell…

I assumed A QUIET PLACE was horror/suspense. Most of the trailers indicated that this was so. I did not get the chance to see this film in the theater, but I might have tried a lot harder had I known about the scifi underpinnings. At some point, both my kids saw the film and told me with a wink and a nod that I should definitely view it. “It’s really good,” they said, “and not gory like a horror flick.”

That comment from them made me think it was for sure a horror flick, a well done horror flick, but still, horror all the way.

So…I didn’t get it. In fact, I might have missed the film altogether had it not been for a friend spilling the beans recently.

“You’ve seen A QUIET PLACE, haven’t you? There are aliens in this film.”

Okay, so now I know and now you know and it’s not a huge spoiler. The first view of the alien comes by the end of the beginning sequence, about 7 minutes into the film.

However, this story is not alien-centric. It’s family-centric in a really great way. The premise of an alien who hears its prey and only then comes to destroy, but leaves survivors alone if they are silent, now that is a fun and new angle on the alien invasion story.

Five reasons I recommend A QUIET PLACE, directed by the lead actor, John Krasinski

  1. Superior storytelling, lots of tension and heart. The idea of watching a silent film has been lost to the modern audience. In this creepy portrayal, there are powerful swaths of storytelling in which the visual completely dominates the viewing experience. That feels new and vibrant, in part because the visual story telling in A QUIET PLACE is well done.
  2. The family unit (not one individual) is the protagonist and each of the members are smartly drawn. A deaf character adds depth to the unfolding drama. We root for all of them. (Dad played by John Krasinski. Mom played by Emily Blunt. Daughter played by Millicent Simmonds, a deaf actress.)
  3. Powerful and brutal villain(s). Ugly too.
  4. Inspiring examples of the will to survive and the costs we incur, AKA the suffering we endure, to love one another.
  5. Juxtaposition of idyllic scenery/cinematography and the unknown, the mystery of that which is not seen, the horror that is waiting to besiege.

The story unfolds in a post-alien invasion rural US (the locale is possibly somewhere East of the Mississippi, maybe Vermont). The aliens, rarely present, including their spaceships are not seen in the film, have come to Earth and have destroyed all living creatures who make noise (even animals that sniff about and snarl). It seems the aliens have no visual acuity, but can hear from very very far away and once they hear, they come to kill almost immediately. Those who survive the invasion are attempting a life in silence, including the protagonist family. The audience meets them initially as they tiptoe through a drug store (they are all barefoot) and scavenge for medicine and goods. The audience deduces, this is one town of millions of towns and this is one family among thousands of surviving groups? One other survivor is seen in the film…Let’s just say, he doesn’t last long.

Imagine your family trying not to make any noise. Imagine trying to communicate, trying to thrive without vocalizing. Imagine feeling pain without crying and playing monopoly without table chatter. Imagine that your life depended on staying silent. Herein lies the tension of the film. Also, there are discoveries to be made about the villain and how to defeat it/them. Might something be unearthed by our protagonists? Perhaps, but at what cost? You’ll have to watch the film to find out. $5.99 to rent on iTunes.

The House of the Scorpion, Contemplating Human Cloning, For Educators

Educators, THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION provides a valuable and sensitive context for a discussion on genetics and cloning. To begin the journey, read the novel alongside your student(s). Next, discuss the science. There are a number of kid-friendly articles on cloning, I liked this one from Science News For Students

Finally, with an understanding of what cloning is, dig deep into the human story presented by Nancy Farmer in her deftly written account of a boy clone, Matt Alacrán.

 

To order HOUSE OF THE SCORPION, click here.

 

Here are a few questions to get the juices of discussion flowing.

  1. Who is Matt? How would you describe him?
  2. Why do you think others often treat him cruelly?
  3. How would you describe Celia?
  4. What does Celia feel about Matt?
  5. What does El Patrón feel about Matt? Why do you think he calls Matt “mi vida”?
  6. What does it mean to be owned by a person? (Tam Lin, Matt, Celia, and even Felicia…all of them tell stories that indicate they are owned and not free…owned by El Patrón.) How is it that El Patrón owns them?
  7. What is an eejit?
  8. How is an eejit similar or different than Matt?
  9. How would you describe Matt’s struggle with being a clone? Does it make sense to you? Why or Why not?
  10. Matt’s life makes a positive difference in the lives of many others in the novel. Make a list of those people.
  11. Do you believe the cloning of people will take place in our future? In no, why?
  12. If yes, How should clones be viewed by the society that creates them?
  13. Can you imagine a situation where you would choose to have a clone of yourself created or that of a loved one?

Synopsis of the Cloning Story:

THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION is a Middle Grade/YA novel that follows the story of Matt Alacrán, one soul and his battle to find meaning and love in the midst of his genetic reality. El Patrón, a powerful drug lord who has an appetite for eternal life, has allowed Matt to be created as his clone, but the assumption is that Matt will not to live much past his adolescence. El Patrón’s long-term plans are to harvest the boy’s organs for himself. Neither the reader nor Matt know all of this initially. The reveal happens little by little. This is not a horror story in essence, though there are horrific issues to grapple with…Primarily, this story is about a young person figuring out who he is, learning day by day what it means to be human.

The House of the Scorpion, An Audiobook Review

Roadtrip Listen

Audiobook Rating

THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION

by Nancy Farmer

read by Raúl Esparza

8 out of 10

 

Highly Recommend! This listen is perfect for a family road trip because the novel is well written and engaging enough to capture the interest of a variety of story-lovers, young and old. The audio voices are well-performed by actor, Raúl Esparza (Ferdinand, Law & Order: Special Victim’s unit) and the story lends itself easily to the listening ear.

5 Reasons for such a strong review:

1. Initially, there are few characters to follow and as new ones are introduced, the listener can maintain a grip on who everyone is…including, there are a number of characters with accents and very distinct voices (performed well by Esparza).

2. The point of view is third person, it stays close to Matt. It does not jump around from character to character.

3. The repetition of little stories told mostly by El Patrón, work like anchors for the listening brain. I write about this in my review of the novel, THE HOUSE OF THE SCORPION Repetition is a common story-telling technique, much like songwriters or poets will use a chorus or a repeated stanza to drive a point home.

4. The writing is top notch, which means, the dialogue is well written. The dialogue feels authentic, like real people talking.

5. Description of Opium takes place slowly and organically. The listener doesn’t have to absorb a huge amount of exposition, the describing of places, houses, rooms, plants, animals, people etc..takes place incrementally. Matt’s life starts out small and his view of Opium is narrow, but little by little, as he learns, the listener learns. Details are added that are important, but not all at once. It makes the audio format easy to follow.

For more on how to choose a good audiobook, see Part II  The Rise of the Audio Book